The Chicago Housing Authority has paid out nearly $2 billion over the past five years to help pay rent for nearly 37,000 low-income families in Chicago. But much of that taxpayer money has gone to pay for substandard apartments and units that repeatedly fail inspections, according to an analysis by The Chicago Reporter and NBC5 Investigates. And in many cases, it appears that while taxpayers are paying, and tenants are suffering in poor housing, the middlemen -- the landlords -- are reaping the profits.
This spring, Joletta Jordan and her seven-year-old daughter decided to rent an apartment in Chicago, as participants in the CHA's Housing Voucher Program, which used to be known as Section Eight housing. The program is designed to get residents out of housing projects and into better apartments in safer neighborhoods.
It works like this: A resident finds a voucher-approved private apartment, the resident pays whatever he or she can afford, and the CHA picks up the rest of each month's rent. The units are supposed to be well-kept, and they're subject to regular inspections. But for residents like Jordan, that is not always happening.
Jordan arranged to rent a CHA-subsidized apartment on the city's southwest side. She moved in last April, and immediately made a list of several items she wanted her landlord to fix.
"When it would rain, the ceiling would leak," Jordan said. "It started smelling like mildew in the closets, in the rooms. It was just making me and my baby sick."
Jordan said both she and her daughter have asthma, and the conditions in the apartment made it difficult for them to breathe.
Joseph Doolah was Jordan's landlord. He charged $1,200 a month for the two-bedroom apartment. Jordan paid slightly more than a hundred dollars of that rent, and the rest -- $1,084 a month -- came from taxpayer subsidies.
Doolah told NBC5 that Jordan complained constantly from the moment she moved in, and that he responded promptly to each of her complaints.
"She gave me this big list -- all these lists," he said. "And it's signed that everything is done the same day."
But the apartment failed two inspections during the short time that Jordan lived there. The second failed inspection came in July, after Jordan says she came home -- after being gone several days -- to find her sink and dishwasher filled with sewage.
"My house smells like an outdoor toilet," she told a photographer from The Chicago Reporter who visited her apartment at the time. "I can't live in these conditions."
Doolah told NBC 5 that he suspected Jordan was dissatisfied with the location of her apartment, and didn't want to live there. He also disputed that the brown liquid was sewage, and that it was more likely a backup of grease which he says Jordan deliberately dumped down her sink in order to get out of her lease. Doolah said he immediately took care of the sink backup, and the CHA confirmed that.
But while Doolah may have been responsive to Jordan's complaints, that is not always the case with CHA voucher landlords, according to Tamiko Holt, a tenant advocate who is also a voucher resident herself.
"The landlords do just enough to get by, but not enough to fix the problem permanently," Holt said.
An analysis by The Chicago Reporter seems to show that. For example, in 2012, according to The Reporter's investigation, the CHA inspected 28,000 voucher units, and nearly two-thirds of those properties failed at least half of their inspections. The failure rate has increased steadily for the past six years, The Reporter found.
"Some [landlords] just don't feel that they have to put the money into the apartments, because [the renters] are Section Eight residents," said Holt. "They say, 'This should be good enough for them.'"
The Reporter's analysis also found that landlords are getting above-market-value rental rates. It's not clear whether that was the case for Jordan in her $1,200/month apartment. Doolah said that rent included hefty fees to the building's condominium association, and higher property taxes because Jordan's apartment included an outdoor patio.
In the end, Jordan chose to move out of her southwest side apartment after the sink incident in July. She still has a housing voucher and is currently looking for a new home - only now in Missouri.
"I choose not to give up," Jordan said. "I choose not to be depressed, and I choose to believe that something good has to come out of this bad situation."
For details of The Chicago Reporter's in-depth analysis of the CHA's Housing Voucher Program and the deteriorating conditions of many subsidized apartments, read Angela Caputo's investigation, "Cashed Out," in the July/August edition of The Reporter.